Are you a special education major? Do you have a heart for students with disabilities? Maybe you want to be an aide for the blind child in a regular classroom. Or perhaps you just enjoy helping people and are interested in opportunities for volunteering. Would you like to support the unique needs of blind or visually impaired students and others?
Depending on where you live, there are probably a number of organizations that would be delighted to have you volunteer, and there are a variety of possible volunteer roles you can take, both virtual and in-person, according to your interests and abilities.
- Volunteer on campus. Most colleges and universities have an office of disability services. These offices provide assistance in finding the right assistive technologies and helpful tools for enrolled students who are blind or visually impaired. The administration helps connect these visually impaired students with fellow students who wish to volunteer as a personal notetaker, textbook reader, tutor, or to help them navigate around campus.
- Serve as a personal reader. A reader is someone who reads print material to a blind person either directly or by recording it. Reading aloud is always fun with younger children. (You will need to add a few words of explanation when the illustrations in a storybook carry the plot.) But reading aloud isn’t just for kids. A visually impaired student’s need for readers will increase in the higher grades and in college. Blind adults also use readers on the job and in their homes for personal mail and other material.
- Be My Eyes. There is a free mobile app called “Be My Eyes” on iOS and android devices that connects blind and low-vision individuals with sighted volunteers from all over the world. If a blind or visually impaired person needs help with a visual task (e.g., picking out clothes, distinguishing colors, finding misplaced items, reading product labels or instructions, getting information off a non-accessible website, describing pictures and artwork, etc.), they call the service and it connects that person through a live video call to a sighted person who can speak their language. You choose what you are willing to help with and when, based on your skills and availability.
- Record a book. If you have a good speaking voice and can read well, you can volunteer to record audio books through Librivox, which produces public domain audio books for free.
- Read the news. Access News is a reading service by Society for the Blind that allows volunteers to record current news, magazines, and other items of interest so that people who are blind, low vision, or cannot read conventional print can listen to these publications through the telephone.
- Seek out a blind person in your community. Volunteer for regular visits and companionship. Take them out to a coffee shop once a week for exercise and sensory stimulation. Ask what sorts of books they like and read to them. Listen to a podcast or radio show together. Set up a backyard birdfeeder, then sit out on the patio where you can enjoy the flutter of happy birds chirping. Or sit out on the front porch to hear the sounds of people and traffic going by. You can describe to them what sights go with specific noises.
When volunteering to assist a blind person in your class and getting to know them, chances are you will become good friends. You may want to socialize and have fun together outside of school. Just don’t forget about your visually impaired friend when you’re in a group. Choose things to do that will enable them to participate with your other friends.
Here are some ideas for inclusive activities…
- Host a poetry slam. A poetry slam reclaims the rich oral tradition of poetry and storytelling with gorgeous spoken-word performances before a live audience. The performer’s personal connection to the story told in the poem can make it intensely emotional.
- Tell jokes. Amuse each other with jokes and riddles, keeping in mind what’s appropriate for your particular friends’ sensibilities.
- Play tactile games. Play games that don’t require sight, or modify the game so that a visually impaired person can play. A tactile tic-tac-toe game can be made with cut-out cardboard, wooden, or magnet shapes. For a tactile “I Spy,” fill a box or bag with small toys, blocks, shells, coins, pasta, etc. and have them search for certain items as they identify the objects by touch.
- Play verbal games. Quizzes, trivia games, word games, guessing games, and identifying sounds are always fun for everyone.
- Mold clay. Modeling clay provides a great tactile sensory experience that’s not only therapeutic but also lets you create a one-of-a-kind handcrafted memento.
- Karaoke. Homeschooled American Idol contestant Scott MacIntyre proved that one doesn’t need perfect eyesight to be a fantastic singer! Or get some simple instruments such as a ukulele, harmonica, and bongos, then improvise away!
TIPS: Treat a person with a visual impairment like you would anyone else. Don’t talk loud or patronize them, but do give detailed descriptions. For example, when walking with them verbally describe the landscape, structures, etc. and be specific. When referring to objects, think about attributes other than color, such as shape, weight, texture, size, and location. Alert them to the presence of low-hanging branches and other obstacles they won’t be able to see. Don’t point or gesture “over there” but say “it’s just a few feet up ahead on the left.” If the person is about to collide with something, say “Stop!” instead of “Watch out!” Always respect the person’s individuality, dignity and independence. Don’t always assume help is required, but ask the person if they would like your help and let them tell you what they want. Ask them to teach you something, too, like how to read braille. This will make it more of a mutually beneficial relationship rather than just a one-sided effort on your part.